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Doctor Who 3.2: The Shakespeare Code - longer review article

April 22nd, 2007 (01:24 pm)

What follows is presented on a small custom friends group aimed at those who might be interested to read a longer piece about Doctor Who. It's locked because it's promised to a fanzine editor as part of a review of the entire season, and so won't appear in print until July at the earliest; this is therefore using LJ as a form of private circulation rather than as an open blog, and I request that this distinction is respected.

The Shakespeare Code

A review for This Way Up

Doctor Who has been successfully rebuilt as a battleship of popular culture, an all-conquering vessel which commands the tempestuous seas of Saturday night television, leaving the sleek and modish and the well-tried but worn ships of another line struggling against its tide. The problem that all these craft face is that they are all, in their ways, timeships, negotiating several demographic oceans at once. Once again Doctor Who is ‘the children’s own series which adults adore’. There are monsters and clear shades of light and dark for the children, even if the children learn (as, for example, with New Earth) that those shades aren’t as clearly defined as they were first led to believe; and irony, sexual innuendo, topical allusions and the manipulation of nostalgia for the grown-ups. Russell T. Davies’s scripts are very good at extracting emotive drama from simple settings, and more complex situations tend to have been left to other writers. The late Elizabethan London of The Shakespeare Code, harbouring witches who are not really witches, and a playwright whose mastery of the language and gift of showmanship has made him the focus of a celebrity cult, proved perhaps too rich a mixture for its forty-five minutes.

The intention was to portray Shakespeare as a rock star, according to the publicity; and, while drawing broadly on the Shakespeare myth as it has evolved since the eighteenth century (acknowledged by the ‘you’re Bard’ joke), The Shakespeare Code is particularly keen to stress Shakespeare as performer, though there is no mention of him performing in his plays in the episode. Instead he’s a celebrity playwright, and his explosion onto the stage suggests that Martha hasn’t invented the cry of author, author: he’s used to acclaim and to addressing the audience. It’s Shakespeare that this audience have come to see, to heckle, to find out the gossip about the next play. There’s enough in the literature of the period to give this characterisation an historical basis, too. Shakespeare’s entourage includes characters called Dick and Kempe, who are presumably based on Richard Burbage, leading actor of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and the company’s comic actor, Will Kempe. The master of the revels at this time wasn’t called Lynley, but there was a printer called Paul Linley at this time, and a few years later a neighbour of Shakespeare, William Lynley, died of the plague.

Not surprisingly for an episode which sets out by eliminating a character named after Shakespeare scholarship’s most prominent Doctor Who fan, the association of the ‘London, 1599’ of The Shakespeare Code with the historical London is tangential. The Globe is depicted as the heart of a metropolis, and not on the edge of the built-up area, as it was. It wasn’t a new building in 1598, but a reconstruction, the wooden structure of ‘The Theatre’ having been dismantled after the landlord evicted the Lord Chamberlain’s Men from their old site in Shoreditch, so (if this level of historical detail is to be born in mind) Peter Streete would probably not have had the freedom to redesign the theatre to the Carrionites’ designs. However, the only note which seriously threatened the illusion was the depiction of the exterior of Bedlam in an anachronistic architectural style, derived in part from Albion Hospital from the first series. This was a pity as The Mill seem to have consulted maps of the period to see what buildings and streets looked like, as seen by London Bridge and the silhouette of old St Paul’s, and there is a plan of 1559 available on the internet which shows Bedlam as it was in the late sixteenth century.

The Shakespeare Code, however, is metahistory if it is any history at all. Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate, in his article in The Daily Telegraph (21 April 2007) to accompany his new edition of the Complete Works, notes that 1599 is the title of a recent book about a year in Shakespeare’s life, by James Shapiro; and as the Doctor says, Love’s Labour’s Won is a lost play, a greater loss in Shakespeare studies, perhaps, than even The Tenth Planet part 4 is to Doctor Who fandom. The episode sets itself up from the outset as a jokily self-conscious commentary on Shakespeare and our attitudes to him and his times, perhaps because it knows that it’s going to open up too many cans of worms.

In his interview with Ian Wylie of the Manchester Evening News, Matthew Graham explained that the 1973 of Life on Mars was a Wonderland, which mirrored Sam’s concerns in the twenty-first century as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s mundane anxieties were exaggerated and/or combated on the other side of the looking glass. The Russell T Davies version of Doctor Who has included several stories which make a virtue of being set so far in the future that the detail of human society is almost unimaginable. Doctor Who with a contemporary setting seems a little more difficult, often relying on juxtaposing more fully realised characters with caricatures who are either jettisoned or brought to a more complex understanding of themselves or of life.

The historical stories are more difficult to generalise in this way. On the one hand they are wonderlands because they are remote from the viewer’s environment, but they bring a baggage of convention and expectation with them known to all sections of the audience. Both children and adults ‘know’ what the late sixteenth century was like. As well as period drama, this is the age of Time Team and of historical re-enactment. The costumed guide in character is seemingly ubiquitous, and was this still Sydney Newman’s Doctor Who (though Newman’s vision, such as it was, never reached the screen as he imagined it), the historical characters would have suitably improving dialogue. Instead – and building on an established Doctor Who tradition – The Shakespeare Code mingles information with myth and draws on established fictional representations of the period. The theatrical world of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has been seen in Stage Beauty and (of course) Shakespeare in Love. There are echoes of that film’s playful construction of an Elizabethan theatrical world in The Shakespeare Code, but Dean Lennox Kelly’s Shakespeare was more self-confident than the fragile Joseph Fiennes who had yet to find his muse. Kelly would have needed no Gwyneth Paltrow to discover his Juliet – and his wooing of Martha and flirtation with the Doctor show that he is fully conversant with his sexuality.

While it’s doubtful that anyone expects The Shakespeare Code to follow the conventions of the modern drama-documentary style, the attention to detail in the design, and the much-advertised use of Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank and houses in Warwick and Coventry as locations comes close to bringing it into re-enactment territory. This jars a little with Doctor Who’s storytelling, which in its present form isn’t bounded by literalism; storytelling is the key word here, as a concept is taken and extrapolated with an emphasis on making it comprehensible to the viewer in their own terms. The Doctor’s adventures become a legendary corpus and the viewer is told a version of events which fit their own environment. The broadcast version of (for example) Bad Wolf could be interpreted as drawing on what we might call a Platonic ideal of the episode, where the Doctor, Rose and Jack are involved in a situation which don’t necessarily involve reality and game show formats familiar to an audience from 2005, but where the version of the story made does because that’s how the storyteller chose to convey the theme of the characters’ predicament to his viewers in 2005. The Shakespeare Code is poised unhappily between an avowedly fantastical 1599 and a more literalist model.

Various elements of the story suffered from conflicts between the numerous influences on the story. The Carrionites were a case in point. They were burdened by having to serve as a model, within the fiction of the episode, for the witches in Macbeth. The pattern of two older witches, one older than the other, and a young witch, representing the maiden-mother-crone triple depiction of womanhood/goddesshood beloved by today’s neopagans, is often followed by modern productions of Macbeth, though it is not suggested by the text itself. At the same time the Carrionites were described as creatures from the ‘dawn of the universe’ who use words and shapes instead of mathematics to understand the fundamental principles of the cosmos. The latter explanation doesn’t make much sense at all, and the idea of a Carrionite empire based upon ‘bones and blood and witchcraft’ introduced as the fate of Earth if the Carrionites take over leaves us none the wiser. The origins of the Carrionites draw on the internal mythology of Doctor Who, not only with its explicit citation of the defeat of the Carrionites by the Eternals, but also evoking memories of the Great Vampires of State of Decay, and their defeat by the Time Lords in the era of Rassilon. The Carrionites also reference Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with its prehistoric Earth of demons who were forced somehow to the fringe of the human world. The appearance of the Carrionites borrows heavily from Buffy’s vampires, complete with the tendency for the spokesperson-Carrionite to appear with a human face most of the time.

Given the Buffy heritage, and other instances of contemporaneity – ‘Good old J.K.!’ - it’s a pity that the Carrionites present witchcraft in a reactionary way. The opening scene, with the seduction and devouring of Wiggins, was a timeslot-friendly rendering of the myth of the succubus, the demon seductress who drains men of their seed and their energy, sometimes identified with the figure of Adam’s first wife from Jewish mythology, whose name, Lilith, Gareth Roberts has borrowed for his young Carrionite. Lilith is clearly used to controlling Shakespeare, and has probably been visiting him at night for a long time, plundering his literary creativity rather than his reproductive capacity. Given Lilith’s status as an icon to some feminists, the presentation of the Carrionites as predatory women led by a seducer of human (and Time Lord) males is at the least provocative. The strong suggestion that all Carrionites are female, conjoined with their appetite for motiveless destruction (‘blasted heath’, indeed) plays into the hands of those who accuse Doctor Who writers of misogyny. I suspect clumsiness, but it is unfortunate that it is the king of the all-male Elizabethan stage who eventually expels the Carrionites, making the episode look like a triumphalist male blow in the gender wars.

The counterpoint to the Carrionites where The Shakespeare Code’s depiction of women is concerned should be Martha Jones, but in this episode she is weaker than in the two surrounding ones. The danger with writing a Doctor Who companion is that her talents and traits can shift according to the demands of the episode, and it’s unfortunate that in her second episode Martha displays more insight into literature than she does into medical history. Her failure to know about Bedlam, when she knew enough about the literary context, reflects Gareth Roberts’s interests, but cuts across the focused, scientific coding established for the character in Smith and Jones, and more importantly loses Martha an opportunity to display some knowledge of medical history to the Doctor, suggesting in turn that the much vaunted establishment of the companion as a partner to the Doctor rather than an assistant, achieved successfully with Rose, might not carry forward.

There’s an emphasis on the Doctor’s literate nature too here. He’s unafraid to quote his Dylan Thomas alongside suggesting lines to Shakespeare. He understands the emotional impact of words, in a way that he might not have done when he looked like William Hartnell. However, he knows that this is not his central skill, and that Shakespeare is the greater wordsmith. Here it’s Shakespeare who has created the weapon, which can’t be rendered inactive by the sonic screwdriver (though as the screwdriver presumably works by manipulating sound waves, the Doctor probably could legitimately use it here) and has to banish the Carrionites with what turns out to be a bit of Hogwartsish cod Latin. The broadcast of the spoken co-ordinates is not only reminiscent of the climax of Logopolis, but disappointing considering the emphasis placed on the Carrionites’ aversion to mathematics earlier, and exposes again the problems inherent in the false dichotomy between mathematics and language. I’d have liked to have seen the location of the Carrionites’ banishment expressed without recourse to spoken numbers. Nonetheless this recognises the magical sensibility many in the early modern period attributed to mathematics, as developed in modern historical fiction by Peter Ackroyd in Hawksmoor; Ackroyd is also well-known as a biographer of Shakespeare.

David Tennant’s Doctor is still much faster, more angular, than the solid and brooding performance of Christopher Eccleston. Eccleston’s Doctor forced time for reflection within the breakneck pace of the series. Tennant does not, and statements that there is a darkness inside the Doctor or that the personality the Doctor displays to the people he encounters is an act don’t make up for it. The payoff comes in Gridlock, but more indications of substance were needed in the first two episodes of the series.

The effort spent in establishing the CGI views of London, and the working relationship established with the location sites, suggest that the Elizabethan setting might be revisited next year, an impression most strongly enforced by the unheralded appearance of Angela Pleasance as Elizabeth I at the end. Pleasance’s delivery of ‘Dok-tor’ has been compared favourably with Terry Molloy’s Davros by many fans, and if this is what the queen is like in the universe of Doctor Who, perhaps that explains how within a few years Shakespeare can be turned from the high-kicking air-punching ‘Northern monkey’ of Dean Lennox Kelly, into the timorous courtier played by Hugh Walters in The Chase... but given what I’ve written above, this is taking the series’ storytelling too literally; or is that itself part of the fun?

The 2007 series sees Doctor Who at its most popular ever. The favourable notices across all corners of the media, the multiple magazines, the bestselling books, all lend the programme an air of invulnerability at the moment, one BBC schedulers seem ready to exploit given the peregrinations around early Saturday evening that began with Gridlock. In The Shakespeare Code the programme’s ascendancy is implicitly recognised as William Shakespeare himself is presented as the star of his own ‘mass entertainment’. The Doctor is not just meeting his intellectual equal in Shakespeare, he is meeting a fellow icon of popular culture, which for the Doctor (who likes his seven million viewers) is the best and only kind.

There was so much about The Shakespeare Code that could have been so much better; perhaps an extra episode would have helped all the ideas Gareth Roberts included in the script develop into a more solid offering. Instead much was promised but the production failed to deliver as sophisticated an episode as the ingredients deserved.

(Unlocked,  27 April 2008)


Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 01:48 pm (UTC)

I request that it's not written in red on green. Argle ouch!

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 01:52 pm (UTC)

Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 02:00 pm (UTC)

I liked this episode more before reading your review. The word "Squee!" is consistently appropriate in my reactions to this series of Who. Perhaps I have an inner child Doctor fan?

I always try to suspect clumsiness where malice is not proven. Still, are these things EVER written by women? There must be some lesbian Whovians out there who would be able to keep up the required level of cultural allusion.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 02:15 pm (UTC)

Last night's episode was written by a woman, albeit one who has or has had a boyfriend.

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 02:17 pm (UTC)

Interesting in that case that it omitted to include blokes overreacting to Martha's gender, as they realistically would have done. I suppose there just wasn't enough room in the plot.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 03:22 pm (UTC)

I've mentioned something that could have been done in my review post.

Posted by: Penny Paperbrain (pennypaperbrain)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 02:32 pm (UTC)

Incidentally much love for the phrase "when he looked like William Hartnell". I think seeing two different Doctors in my own day and age has helped me emotionally grasp the idea of the Doctor as an unchanging abstract who transcends but is also informed by actors' performances, and appreciate its hold on the fannish mind.

Not dissimilar to organised religion, only less silly. And it's the same essence that young Abel worships in you, I believe.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 03:12 pm (UTC)

I must remember to re-read this when I'm not feeling ill and am able to give a more considered response. Still, I was glad to see I'm not the only person who picked up on Lilith's name.

Re: understanding the universe with words, not maths: this reminded me of the way the most extreme postmodernists have tried to see our understanding of the universe as constructed and ultimately artificial, not realising that not only might this not apply to the humanities and social sciences as much as it does to the arts, it certainly doesn't apply to the physical and biological sciences, which rely on a very different method of acquiring knowledge (even taking into account ideas of 'paradigm shifts' etc.).

For instance, some feminists saw the accepted model of human fertilisation (the sperm finds the egg and forces its way into it) as chauvinistic, coding men as 'active' and women as 'passive'; it would be better, they said, to return to older theories that saw the egg as actively grabbing sperm. This was rightly rejected as having no experimental basis.

The idea that mathematics is just a model that could be replaced with words is a similar idea: it sounds interesting to someone with a background in the arts, but doesn't have any real strength, particularly the way it was developed (or rather, not developed) here, with spoken numbers being used.

I enjoyed the episode more than you did, but I suspect that I won't on second viewing, certainly not now the extent of the Hrry Potter references have been made clear to me.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)

I had to do a little reading about Lilith, and was entirely reliant on the internet where there are a few sites which don't seem to make allowances for their lack of grasp of source material. I just hope that what I've said stands up to scrutiny.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 04:08 pm (UTC)

Jewish demonology isn't one of my areas of expertise! But what you said matches up with my small amount of knowledge on the subject.

Posted by: Dewi Evans (wonderwelsh)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 10:20 pm (UTC)

I really enjoyed your review - many thanks for posting it.

I have to say that I understand the accusations of mysogyny (but not how to spell it apparently) a lot better now you've explained it a bit more. Although I still think it's almost as reactionary as some fans' objection to Rose's gay comment in Aliens of London.

As for the issue of maths vs. words - you and Daniel are right in pointing out that it's a bit ridiculous, but the very fact that it's an interesting idea is surely enough in itself. I certainly had very little difficulty suspending my disbelief and it I don't think any more explanation was really needed. I think you're right in claiming a recourse to stereotype - but surely that's not always a bad thing? Certainly not when it's done this well. Sometimes 'blood, bones, witchcraft' (or whatever the line was) is all you need? Certainly, I thought one of the main strengths of the episode was that, while it certainly seemed a little too rich for its forty-five minutes (as you said) Gareth Roberts managed to choose his lines very well indeed to make the right cultural connections in the right place in such a way as to pack in as much as possible into the most economic use of words. A good example being my oft-referred to amazment at just how much is packed into that '57 academics' line.

Anyway, just nitpicking. As usual I pretty much agree with all you've said.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 22nd, 2007 10:41 pm (UTC)

Thanks. I have wondered whether I am expecting too much of The Shakespeare Code, and this lay behind the comment in the last from penultimate paragraph about 'part of the fun?' I felt that it was ambitious and perhaps I see it setting itself goals that it never seriously sought to win.

I didn't get the '57 academics' reference and have had to have it explained to me. Certainly a longer essay could be written unpacking the episode - and Jonathan Bate liked it well enough.

Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2007 08:39 am (UTC)

Thanks for posting this- It was a really good, intelligent read. I do agree with you about the whole mysogyny/Lillith thing, and I think you've explained it very well. Charitably,(but I suspect, too optimistically) I even wondered if the witches were portrayed like that to show 'how the Elizabethans feared women', rather than an unintentional reveal of how male Sci-Fi writers see women or feel able to trivialize women's history. The problem is that these views haven't died out, and such portrayals can still reflect and create popular prejudice. With the Elizabethan women characters we have either the busty, sexuality & hospitality- generous, inn-keeper Dolly, axe-happy over-painted power crazed harpy Queen Elizabeth, or a satanic triumvirate of sperm & blood sucking witches. Yike! The only (modern) balance we have to this as Martha and her key role here is Love Interest of Shakespeare and the Love Disinterest (ho ho) of The Dr. And while 'nearly a qualified doctor', she needs to be told by The Dr about Bedlam mental hospital, I mean Come On. And all that- 'Monstrous Regiment of Women'- in one episode. The gay references aren't comparable (and have been 99% friendly). (btw this isn't sonic screwdrivers at dawn vs wonderwelsh, its just the Babelfish translating).
I think the subject of DR Who/Shakespeare deserved and needed more than 45 minutes, yes.
Visually it looked incredible & of course, overall, I think we're blessed to have a series of this calibre & Dave Is A God, Freema Is a Goddess etc etc.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2007 10:17 am (UTC)

There is of course a puritan preacher in the tradition of John Knox - so that makes the reference to The Monstrous Regiment of Women all but explicit! I agree that the treatment of women may have been intended to represent Elizabethan attitudes, but it wasn't brought out well in the production, sadly.

Posted by: Dewi Evans (wonderwelsh)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2007 01:10 pm (UTC)

While I can undertand your sensitivity on this issue, Rae, and while I respect your expertise in the matter, I'm afraid I simply can't see the link between very blatantly pantomime witches who are also meant to be aliens from another world and 'women in general'. I was under the impression that this was another example of Doctor Who explaining commonly held superstions and stories - here represented by real-life witches in the Macbeth vein. Rather than finding an explanation for these ideas of female villainy within humanity itself (which would, in some ways, have supported the mysoginist stereotype of the evil hag), the show argued that the witch-on-a-broomstick-cackling-away mcguffin was actually based not on any justifiable view of human women but on the iconography of an ancient alien race which Shakespeare adopted. That hatred of women and hatred of Carrionites may have evolved, from this encounter, to the point where they have become the same thing may well be true - but i don't think the show attempts to justify that. If you look at it in this way, you could argue that they set the stereotype up in order to shoot it down (which, given the almost tangible postmodern strategies of this ep., isn't really that far-fetched as an explanation).

Elizabethan views of witchcraft certainly were mysoginistic (good grief, I need to learn to spell) but what the Elizabethans thought and the way the Carrionites were represented bear only the most superficial similarity to one another. The iconography is the same, but the cutural formations behind them are very different in each case - it's the difference between the 'knowing' attitudes of a modern audience towards OTT stereotypes and the genuine fear of female power that Elizabethan witchcraft beliefs represented. A gulf which, I'm sure you'll agree, is pretty vast. Of course, you're right that your concerns are still relevant to today's societies, but while this ep. doesn't do much to dispell these myths, I really do believe that it only appears to support them - what's actually going on is far more complicated.

That said, Martha not knowing about bedlam was a bit ridiculous. I still think she's doing her bit for the credibility of the Doctor's companions a lot more than Rose is.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 24th, 2007 12:11 am (UTC)

Thanks for this, Dewi - there's a lot to think about here, and I'd missed some of what the episode was suggesting, I think.

Posted by: ms_rebecca_riot (ms_rebecca_riot)
Posted at: April 24th, 2007 09:16 am (UTC)

Evans- debate is healthy & all that.
As I see it depictions of alien worlds and science fiction can't be divorced from the human social context in which they were produced. The aliens still depict women, and witches ('wise women') are played by female actors. The divorce of 'female' from 'evil aliens' never visually happens.
Post-modernism & irony don't necessarily defeat stereotypes & can be lost in translation. Sometimes they are an excuse for the same old thing. I disagree that a genuine fear of female power/sexuality is the preserve of early modern history- if only- so the joke isn't always funny.
What happened to real women accused of being witches was very sad, so pantomime images make me shudder.
Given that children are a key audience, such a group of unbalanced female stereotypes is not necessarily going to be treated as such. I remember how sexism in media images spilled over into my old playground. I know my ten year old self would have totally loved Rose and Martha as antidotes to that.
I did think that the two mother witches were a great metaphor for fear of Lesbian parents.
welllll- on a lighter note- isn't nostalgia_LJ a door into a entirely bizarre parallel Dr Who fan universe? Rusty? Shipping? eh?

Posted by: louisedennis (louisedennis)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2007 09:58 pm (UTC)

"I didn't get the '57 academics' reference and have had to have it explained to me."

I would certainly like to have it explained to me...

-- Not having a good day, how come I can't get the quote button to work?

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: April 23rd, 2007 11:45 pm (UTC)

I've been told that it's a reference to Sonnet 57, cited by academics as evidence of Shakespeare's bisexuality, though I've looked at the sonnet and not understood the reference.